Rewind to the gloomy depths of the global recession, and over in advertising, New York City was bearing its fair share of the brunt as the knock-on effects hit. As clients’ share prices tumbled so did their marketing funds; budgets were slashed, projects shelved and staff shaved. Several New York shops went to the wall, including celebrated outfit Cliff Freeman and boutique agency Toy. All in all, NYC was a tough place to be. But peer behind the scenes of bustling Madison Avenue or packed SoHo in 2011, and the pictures tell a rather different – altogether more positive – story.
“When the downturn first happened, both our agencies here in New York behaved very cautiously,” recalls Rob Rasmussen, chief creative officer at Tribal DDB New York. “It became a situation where the client was always right and we did any and everything they asked. The problem was we lost our purpose. In 2010 we saw this trend start to reverse. Agencies have had to pitch, defend and show what they bring to the table. We’ve gotten lean, restructured and gotten back to what it takes to make good work: trust.”
Rewriting the rules
Taking a glimpse at the results of last year’s Cannes Lions festival affirms NYC’s creative resurgence – for the first time in four years, the city’s mad men and women ousted London as the most creative city in the world and returned home from the French Riviera triumphant in the number-one spot and with a booty of 78 Lions.
But while New York City’s creative power has been boosted, this isn’t down to a return to high budgets or staff numbers. While it’s true that resources have crept up, more significant is the evolution of the industry; NYC is helping rewrite the rules on advertising and kick-start something of a creative renaissance. “Times of uncertainty force us to reconsider the power that creativity – in the widest sense – has in our lives,” says Ferdinando Verderi, creative director at Johannes Leonardo. “Hard times tend to inspire new ideas and force us to find new and better ways to tell our stories. When you have fewer resources to achieve your goals or those of your client, you have to get more creative. In New York, this attitude has spread quickly, setting new standards and inspiring a lot of great clients to look at the power of ideas from a new perspective.”
Embracing fuzzy borders
“A lot of good stuff comes out of bad times,” agrees Paul Malmström, Mother NY co-founder. “We’re forced to use our brains more, we become more entrepreneurial, we collaborate more. Borderless online behavior has inspired a less territorial view in the real world on how to get shit done. The edge of what’s us and them is fuzzier than ever.”
And the award-winning work radiating from NYC is yelling out this new mindset, with new media and real-life interaction leading the charge on the most innovative work (see box out for more) and underlining the city’s creative potential. “I think creativity tends to thrive best in a context free of fear and I’m not sure that we have that in traditional forms of advertising,” says Framestore NY president, Jon Collins. “A lot of exciting ideas have surfaced in the digital and interactive world and I would think that these are the areas that are going to provide a surge in creativity.”
Believe Media’s Jeff Gillian echoes a similar train of thought: “In a sense, the economic downturn really boosted creativity, not only the ideas being generated but also the processes in which to execute them. With severely shrunken budgets, people have been forced to find more creative ways and utilise emerging technology to get the desired results.” So while the content in more traditional mediums has perhaps encountered problems in returning to form and improving its performance, New York City has staked a claim as part of the advertising vanguard when it comes to crafting original and inventive ways of working.
But there is a fine line between true innovation and simply jumping on the latest bandwagon, warns Tribal DDB’s Rasmussen: “We need to stop falling in love with digital tactics that do not have an idea behind them,” he declares. “Without a reason to tweet, check-in or vlog, we are just flexing tech. Consumers have grown weary of face-mapping, augmented reality and being asked to promote every brand that has a Facebook page.”
Bye-bye bulky networks
Johannes Leonardo’s Verderi is equally cautious: “In a time where innovation happens faster than ever, it’s natural to assume evangelists will follow. The industry has become obsessed by the idea of catching up with the latest trends, sometimes forgetting that the brand’s soul still comes first.”
But when the formula is right and the purpose genuine, the outcome can be a shining example of the power of communication. And it’s not just ways of working that have evolved; the agency landscape itself has undergone fundamental changes – as the need to collaborate with a broader range of specialists has emerged, scale has become of less significance.
This attitude was cemented last year as a string of top-rung creatives abandoned bulky network shops to try their hand at more nimble operations (see our feature on page 78 for a selection of these agencies). Following the same footsteps as David Droga five years earlier, CCOs including JWT’s Ty Montague, Gerry Graf at Saatchi & Saatchi and Eric Silver at DDB all quit the network game.
“Many big agencies go after creative directors armed with the lure of ‘turning the place around’,” observes Eric Silver, now a partner at small independent Amalgamated. “The problem is a ‘big creative agency’ is a true oxymoron because the holding companies will demand they grow at a certain percentage every year. This mandate often takes away the option to turn down business because it’s not a good fit. That obviously can be a huge roadblock to maintaining the integrity of the work product. Small and medium-size agencies can stay true to their original Magna Carta but for the big shops, it’s tough.”
Gerry Graf cites a similar craving to get back to a purer form of creativity: “When I was at Saatchi’s, clients were giving projects to smaller shops that they named creative shops, and I remember thinking ‘I could be one of those’,” he says. “I guess with creative at a premium, you get people thinking that they can go and start something too.” Some, however, did buck the trend, most prominently former Mother NY co-founder Linus Karlsson, who swapped his independent life for a turnaround network job and joined McCann Erickson to be the creative lead for both the New York and London offices.
A city of messages
But the overall effect has been to establish a more level playing field, with agencies of diverse sizes boasting different skill-sets and different values. And while the recession has allowed for start-ups to blossom in other parts of the globe too, there is an overwhelming consensus among the city’s adfolk that this urge to create and innovate is part of the nature of NYC itself. “What makes NYC unique is the diversity of talent, hands down,” says Calle Sjoenell, ECD at BBH NY. “There is no place on earth with more diversity in background, experience, skills and ambition.”
Verderi confirms this attitude, and identifies NYC as a place shaped by commercial messages – epitomised by Times Square and its neon billboards. “This allows for an atmosphere in which ideas thrive; people acknowledge them and react to them, oftenvery quickly. The density makes the creative exchange very fast, and as a result, ideas can really spread. The amount of visuals we are exposed to makes for a very selective audience, and one that can recognise good ideas. This is the best condition for creation.”
And so, while the aftershocks of the recession can still be felt in some quarters, New York is a city putting its nose to the grindstone and looking to the future. David Droga, founder and creative chairman of Droga5 concludes: “This is an industry of change, and I think change is good. There is no question that opportunity now is more democratic, and I think that’s fantastic. The onus is on the quality of the thinking rather than the service as such, and I think the days when big clients wouldn’t take small places seriously doesn’t exist anymore. I think New York is probably the most creative advertising city in the world now – when I first moved here five or six years ago I thought it was one of the most conservative advertising cities in the world, paralysed by its scale, but now there’s diversity here and players doing interesting things and stirring it up.”
The Big Apple, it seems, has finally got its bite back.
Highlights from the past 12 months
After four years playing second fiddle to London, last year NYC regained its top spot as Cannes Lions’ Most Creative City. Boosted by golds for the likes of HBO Cube, Puma Hard Chorus, Absolut I’m Here and Axe Clean Your Balls, Anomaly NY also bagged an Outdoor Grand Prix for Diesel. So what work could be claiming metal in 2011?
One campaign that got the whole city buzzing was Mother NY and LEGS’ Kaleidoscope fashion show for Target. Using the Standard Hotel as a vertical stage, they pulled off an epic 20-minute dance and light performance, complete with 61 dancers across 155 rooms and backed by a 30-piece orchestra.
Continuing the musical theme @radical.media unleashed two groundbreaking music videos, both masterminded by director Chris Milk and digital artist Aaron Koblin. The Johnny Cash Project used crowd-sourced drawings to create a collective, ever-changing video art piece, while The Wilderness Downtown for Arcade Fire track We Used to Wait crafted an individual experience for each viewer.
Droga5 meanwhile reaffirmed its reputation for innovation with the Decode project. Uniting Jay-Z and Bing, they placed each page of Jay-Z’s book in the physical word, with fans then using Bing to crack clues and hunt down the words. The agency’s After Hours Athlete initiative for Puma also left behind calorie-counting and professional sports, and instead transformed everyday life into an ongoing game.
Over in film, Saatchi & Saatchi NY also turned heads with its hilarious short opposing California’s Proposition 8 (gay marriage ban) Devin & Glen. Directed by Speck/Gordon, the satirical piece showed married life breaks us all in the end – gay, straight or otherwise.
This gives just a taster of the creative campaigns originating from NYC over the past 12 months, but it’s fair to say the odds look good for the Big Apple keeping its Most Creative City crown for another year.
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